The primary method of diphtheria transmission from person-to-person is through respiratory droplets produced from sneezing and coughing. On rare occasions, spreading may be the result of contact with lesions or sores on the skin of an infected individual, or contact with contaminated clothing due to lesion discharge from an infected individual.
Diphtheria can also be contracted via contact with an object (e.g. a toy) that has been contaminated with bacteria that can cause diphtheria.
The initial symptoms of diphtheria infection include:
Within 2-3 days of infection, the toxin produced by the diphtheria bacteria kills body tissues causing a thick, gray coating (known as a “pseudomembrane”) to build up in the nose, nasal tissues, throat, tonsils, voice box and throat , making it very difficult to breathe and swallow.
In some instances, the toxin can enter the blood stream and harm the kidneys, nerves, and even the heart.
Vaccination is the most effective way to avoid diphtheria. Diphtheria vaccine is traditionally administered in the U.S. combined with vaccines for tetanus and/or pertussis (whooping cough).
Infants and children under six years old normally receive the diphtheria immunization via five doses of DTaP (diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis) vaccine, or the DT (diphtheria and tetanus) vaccine for those children who cannot tolerate the pertussis vaccine.
Preteens should get a booster shot of Tdap at 11 or 12 years old. Those who do not should get a Tdap shot at their next doctor visit.
In adulthood, the Td vaccine should be administered once every ten years. A Tdap dose should be substituted for a dose of Td once, followed by Td boosters every ten years thereafter.
One dose of Tdap vaccine should be administered to pregnant women during each pregnancy (preferably during 27–36 weeks’ gestation) regardless of interval since prior Td or Tdap vaccination.
If you suspect you may have diphtheria, receiving treatment as quickly as possible is vital.
Review of signs and symptoms is usually the first step in diagnosing diphtheria. Testing for bacteria that cause diphtheria is done by taking a swab specimen from the throat, skin lesion or sore. DO NOT WAIT FOR LAB RESULTS. If you or your doctor suspects diphtheria, treatment should begin immediately.
Treatment for diphtheria includes:
Typically after 48 hours of antibiotic treatment, people suffering from diphtheria are no longer able to spread the disease to others. Prior to those 48 hours, patients must be kept in isolation. A doctor will test the patient for presence of the bacteria after the course of antibiotics has been completed to ensure the patient is free of the bacteria.
The diphtheria vaccine is only found in combination with other vaccines. It is available with the tetanus and pertussis vaccines in two formulations – the Diphtheria, Tetanus and Pertussis Vaccine (DTaP) and the Tetanus, Diphtheria and Pertussis Vaccine (Tdap). It is also available with the tetanus vaccine alone in two formulations - the Tetanus and Diphtheria Vaccine (Td) and the Diphtheria and Tetanus Vaccine (DT).